by Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favourite books. I have read it twice in the past 10 years and enjoyed it equally both times. For those who have not read it I will summarise the basic premise as follows (with apologies to Malcolm for any errors):
A new idea or trend or fashion becomes “mainstream” as a result of an epidemic caused by three types of people. Firstly you need “Connectors” – People who know a lot of people from different social circles and can spread the word. This is a person that mingles with the A set, comes from the B set, married into the C set and works with the D set and can interface between them all.
Next you need “Mavens” – that guy that knows every minute piece of information about a subject. The one you contact when you need the latest piece of technology but are overwhelmed by all the information around the topic. This is the person who knows the difference between an LCD and an LED, how many cylinders are in the soon to be released Audi Q21, where to go to buy the cheapest Levis or the best sushi or how many megapixels you need in your next DSLR (I think it is something to do with a camera).
Lastly you need “Salesmen” – Someone that can sell and convince other people to buy into something. We are not just talking insurance and used cars here. Salesmen are born with an ability to persuade another human being to make a decision based on their advice. They derive their energy from closing the deal and are usually able to transfer their skills across industries fairly easily as the nature of the product is of secondary importance.
Two other factors play a very important role in the spread of an epidemic. The stickiness of the message and the context of the message. The stickiness of a message is how well it is understood and remembered. The book details a couple of different examples of television programmes (Sesame Street, Blues Clues) and adverts to illustrate their effectiveness and how the correct packaging of a message can affect it’s stickiness. Gladwell sums it up as follows – “ideas have to be memorable and move us to action” .
Context provides another set of interesting factors that can influence an epidemic. In the eighties New York city crime levels were at an all time high and the public transport system was greatly affected. The trains were covered in graffiti, $150m was lost per annum on fare dodgers and people did not feel safe to travel on the trains. One specific event that helped trigger the tipping point against this situation was the shooting of 4 youths on a train by Bernie Goetz. Bernie was being harassed by them during his train ride and pulled out a midnight special, shooting each of them in turn and paralysing one for life. He was arrested, subsequently acquitted, regarded as a hero and people celebrated his release with impromptu parties in the streets of NYC.
The situation of lawlessness on the trains was addressed in two ways. Firstly the graffiti on the trains was removed. Every day any train with graffiti was repainted, no carriage was allowed to operate if it had any graffiti on it. This process took 6 years at which point the authorities then tackled fare dodgers. Extra manpower was deployed, mobile police stations were set up and criminals were processed in under an hour. Police were able to check prior records of fare offenders and search them for drugs and weapons. Eventually crime levels came down dramatically and people felt safer. The theory behind this approach is called the “Broken Windows theory” and was developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They argued that if a broken window is not fixed it sends a message to people that nobody cares and nobody is in charge. This leads to more broken windows and further anarchy and chaos. The result is that “anything goes” and more crime is encouraged. The subway in NYC in the early eighties provided a context for crime. It was dirty, trains constantly ran late, fare dodging was rife, the carriages were covered in graffiti, in effect “the windows were broken”. Changing 2 seemingly small factors reversed this epidemic and resulted in a decrease in crime in the city. Once again I have simplified things and for the full story with references please read the book but the message is fairly simple to understand.
I decided to write this post after a trip to a leading supermarket recently. The objective of the trip was to get some fruit for breakfast but I ended up in the processed meat aisle during my wandering and happened to read the label of the bacon on offer. I don’t normally do this but was unpleasantly surprised to read the following ingredient declaration: Pork, Salt, Maltodextrin, Dextrose, Acidity Regulator, Phosphates, Antioxidant: Sodium Erythorbate, Flavour Enhancers, Spice Extracts, Colourant, Sodium Nitrate, Sodium Nitrite, Potasium Nitrate, Natural Smoke Flavourant
I don’t even know what some of these ingredients are used for and I make bacon. I use pork, salt, herbs, spices and sodium nitrate and nitrite for preservation. I also make a bacon without any preservatives for those who prefer it. I do know that phosphates are used to keep the water that is injected into the meat from coming out and dextrose is a form of sugar but really – flavour enhancers, colourant and even though it is labelled “Smoked Bacon” it is actually just smoke flavoured liquid that is added to the meat.
So I wonder what it will take to create a tipping point in bacon. Who are the mavens that will know the difference between pasture reared and feedlot, brine injected and air dried, smoke flavour and colourant. Do we have connectors that can disseminate the information from mavens and who are the salespeople that will sell the story. The message is sticky – do you care what you eat?
Will you act on it though?